Grammar and Style Notes

By Jack Lynch

Last updated 28 November 1995

In response to several suggestions, I've created a second version of this guide, which, instead of being one large file (this one's over 80K), is broken into twenty-three, one per letter of the alphabet. I'll continue to maintain both versions. The new one, for those who prefer the shorter loading time, is at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/.; please keep me informed of problems, especially of links gone bad.


Jump directly to a -- b -- c -- d -- e -- f -- g -- h -- i -- j -- l -- m -- n -- o -- p -- q -- r -- s -- t -- u -- v -- w.


These notes are a miscellany of grammatical rules and explanations, comments on style, and suggestions on usage I put together for my classes. Anyone who can resist turning my own preferences into dogma is welcome to use this HTML edition. Please send suggestions and corrections to jlynch@english.upenn.edu.

Note: The popularity of this guide is gratifying -- it's averaging over one hundred fifty hits a day -- but I regret that I can't promise personal responses to grammar and style queries sent my way. You can get a wider range of responses from the newsgroup alt.usage.english.

None of these rules is set in stone, and many are matters of personal preference, but all may be useful in making your writing clearer and more effective.

The entries here are of two types: specific articles on usage, and more general articles on style. The specific articles cover such things as when to use a semicolon and what a dangling participle is; the general articles discuss ways to make "proper" writing even better. The specific articles can be further divided into two classes: (1) grammatical rules and explanations, matters rather of precedent than of taste; and (2) more subjective suggestions for making your writing clearer, more forceful, and more graceful. The specific articles are intended for quick reference, such as when you have to find out whether which or that is appropriate. The general articles lend themselves to browsing and absorbing over time.

The general articles are no less important than the "rules." In fact, bad writing is rarely a matter of grammatical rules -- editors can clean these up with a few pencil marks. It's more often the result of muddled thought. Bad writers consider long words more impressive than short ones, and use words like usage instead of use or methodologies instead of methods without knowing what they mean. They qualify everything with It has been noted after careful consideration's and the facts get buried under loads of useless words. They pay no attention to the literal sense of their words, and end up stringing stock phrases together without regard for meaning. They use clichés inappropriately and say the opposite of what they mean.

I've tried to steer clear of technical terms and, wherever possible, have tried to explain grammatical jargon. This has sometimes meant sacrificing precision for convenience; more sophisticated writers and grammarians will doubtless see points to quibble over, but I hope they get the idea across to novices. Every article on points of grammar -- dangling participles, split infinitives -- begins with a practical definition of the term, followed by some useful rules, and examples of good and bad writing. Sometimes there are suggestions on how to identify possible problems. The definitions and discussions are not exhaustive, just rules of thumb. If you need more detail, consider one of the books in the last section, "Additional Reading."


A

The Above, The Following.

Lists are common in some sorts of writing, introduced by the following and referred to by the above. You can often make a sentence clearer with simple pronouns: instead of the above topics, try these topics -- the context often makes your subject clear.

Adjectives and Adverbs.

An adjective is a word that modifies a noun: it answers which one, how many, or what kind. Some examples: "the big one"; "seven books"; "a devoted student."

Adverbs usually modify verbs, and answer in what manner, to what degree, when, how, how many times, and so forth. Some examples: "He ran quickly"; "I'll do it soon"; "We went twice."

Sometimes adverbs modify adjectives or other adverbs: "She finished very quickly" (very modifies the adverb quickly, which in turn modifies finished); "The work was clearly inadequate" (clearly modifies the adjective inadequate, which in turn modifies work).

The best rule for spotting adverbs is to look for -ly. Be careful, however; not all adverbs end in -ly, and not all -ly words are adverbs: soon, twice, and never are adverbs; friendly, ugly, and northerly are adjectives.

Go easy on the adjectives and adverbs. While modifiers are necessary in any sort of writing, make sure your nouns and verbs are clear and are doing most of the work. As Strunk and White put it, "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

Affect versus Effect.

Affect with an a is usually a verb; effect with an e is (usually) a noun. When you affect something, you have an effect on it. The usual adjective is effective. Effect as a verb is a different word altogether, which means to bring about or to accomplish, as in "to effect a change."

Agreement.

One of the fundamental rules of grammar is that the parts of a sentence should agree with each other. It's easier to demonstrate than to define agreement.

Most agreement is instinctive in native English speakers. In "I has a minute," the verb has doesn't agree with the subject I. We would say "I have." In "John got their briefcase," assuming John got his own briefcase, their should be his. It's obvious.

It gets tricky in only a few cases. A plural noun right in front of the singular verb can throw you off. Consider "Any one of the articles are available": the verb are shouldn't agree with articles, but with the subject, one: the sentence should read, "Any one of the articles is available."

A preposition that governs two pronouns can also cause problems. In "He wanted you and I for the team," the word I should be me: he wanted you and he wanted me, so he wanted you and me. Pay special attention to phrases like you and I, you and she, and so forth.

See also Each, Every, Data, and Media.

All of.

All of the ---- can usually be rewritten as All the ----, All ----, or Every ----.

Alternate, Alternative.

Alternate (as an adjective) traditionally means going back and forth between two things, as in alternate Mondays (i.e., every other Monday). Alternative means other. Traditionalists prefer an alternative to an alternate plan.

Among versus Between.

The simple rule will rarely fail you: use between for two things, among for more than two.

And at the Beginning.

See But at the Beginning.

And/or.

And/or is sometimes necessary in legal documents, but just clutters other writing. One word or the other will almost always do just as well. See Slashes.

Anticipate.

To anticipate something is to get ready for it or to do something in advance; this is not the same as expect. If you expect changes, you think they'll be coming soon; if you anticipate changes, you're preparing to deal with them. Blake certainly didn't expect Modernist poetry, but in some ways he anticipated it by doing similar things a century earlier. Anticipate is often wrongly used (in a love affair with the longer word) where expect is proper.

Apostrophe.

The most common way to form a possessive in English is with apostrophe and s: a hard day's night. After a plural noun ending in s, put just an apostrophe: two hours' work. But if a singular noun ends in s, most style guides prefer s's: James's house. Plain old s apostrophe (as in James' house) is common in journalism, but most other publishers prefer James's.

Note that the possessives of pronouns don't get apostrophes: theirs, not their's; hers, not her's; its, not it's. See It's versus Its.

Apostrophes are sometimes used to make acronyms or other abbreviations plural. This is a matter of a local house style. My preference: don't use apostrophes to make acronyms plural -- not "They took their SAT's," but "They took their SATs." The only exception is when having no apostrophe might be confusing: "Two As" is ambiguous; make it "Two A's." Never use apostrophes as quotation marks to set off words or phrases (unless you need a quotation within a quotation).

To refer to a decade, don't use an apostrophe before the s. Refer to the 1960s or the '60s, not the 1960's or the '60's.

Assure, ensure, insure.

While ensure and insure aren't quite so clear cut, assure is very different from both. You assure a person that things will go right by making him confident. Never use assure in the sense of "Assure that the wording is correct"; you can only assure somebody that it's correct.

Ensure and insure are sometimes used interchangeably, but it may be better to keep them separate. Insuring is the business of an insurance company, i.e., setting aside resources in case of a loss. Ensure means make sure, as in "Ensure that this is done by Monday."

As to whether.

Plain old whether often does the trick. See Wasted Words.

As yet.

Consider using yet. See Wasted Words.

At this point, At the present time, At this point in time.

Never, never, never, never, never. See Currently and Wasted Words.

Audience.

The key to all good writing is understanding your audience. Every time you use language, you engage in a rhetorical activity, and your attention should always be on the effect it will have on your audience.

Think of grammar and style as analogous to, say, table manners. Grammatical "rules" have no absolute, independent existence; there is no Grammar Corps to track you down for using "whose" when "of which" is more proper, and Miss Manners employs no shock troops to massacre people who eat their salads with fish forks. You can argue, of course, that the other fork works just as well (or even better), but both the fork and the usage are entirely arbitrary and conventional. Your job as a writer is to have certain effects on your readers, readers who are continuously judging you, consciously or unconsciously. If you want to have the greatest effect, you'll adjust your style to suit the audience, however arbitrary its expectations.

A better analogue might be clothing. A college English paper calls for the rough equivalent of the jacket and tie (ladies, you're on your own here). However useless or ridiculous the tie may be, however outdated its practical value as a garment, certain social situations demand it, and if you go into a job interview wearing a T-shirt and jeans, you only hurt yourself by arguing that the necktie has no sartorial validity. Your job is to figure out what your audience expects. Likewise, if your audience wants you to avoid ending your sentences with prepositions, no amount of argument over historical validity will help.

But just as you shouldn't go under-dressed to a job interview, you shouldn't over-dress either. A white tie and tails will make you look ridiculous at a barbecue, and a pedantic insistence on grammatical bugbears will only lessen your audience's respect for you. There are occasions when ain't is more suitable than is not, and the careful writer will take the time to discover which is the more appropriate.

B

Basically.

Almost always useless. Qualifiers such as basically, essentially, totally, &c. rarely add anything to a sentence. See Wasted Words, and read it twice.

Between versus Among.

See Among versus Between.

Bluntness.

Writing is too often wimpy. Don't be afraid to be blunt. Instead of "There appear to be indications that the product heretofore referred to may be lacking substantial qualitative consummation, suggesting it may be incommensurate with the standards previously established by this department," try "It's bad" or "It doesn't work." Of course you should be sensitive to your reader's feelings -- there's no need to be vicious or crude, and saying "It sucks" won't win you many friends -- but don't go too far in the opposite direction. Call 'em as you see 'em.

Boldface.

There's no reason to use boldface in an academic paper; spend your time writing, not fiddling with the word processor. See Fonts, Italics, and Titles.

British Spellings.

If you use British spellings, use them consistently. Inconsistent British spellings are an affectation. Jeremy Smith has assembled a catalogue of words that have different spellings in America and Britain.

Bugbears.

Arguments over grammar and style are often as fierce and as fruitless as those over IBM versus Mac, Coke versus Pepsi, and boxers versus briefs. Pedantic and vicious debates over knotty matters such as Prepositions at the End, That versus Which, and Split Infinitives may be entertaining to those who enjoy cockfights, but do little to improve writing. Know as much as you can about the rules, but strive above all for clarity and grace. Think always of the effect you'll have on your audience. Over time you'll come to trust your ear, which will be disciplined by reading the best authors and by constant practice at writing.

But at the Beginning.

Contrary to what your high school English teacher told you, there is no reason not to begin a sentence with but or and; in fact, these words often make a sentence more forceful and graceful. They are almost always better than beginning with however or additionally. Beginning with but or and does make your writing less formal; -- but worse things could happen to most writing than becoming less formal.

C

Capable.

The phrase is capable of ----ing can usually be better rendered as is able to ----, or even turned into an active verb with can ----. See Wasted Words.

Centralized.

Use central whenever possible. See Personalized.

Citation.

The importance of accurate citation cannot be overstated: a paper without proper citations is open to charges of plagiary. Be careful to cite your source for every direct quotation and every borrowed idea. Two standards are common in English papers: that of the MLA Style Guide and that of The Chicago Manual of Style. Either will do. The MLA style calls for a list of "Works Cited" at the end of a paper in standard bibliographical form, alphabetical by author:

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. Edited by Herbert Davis. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965.

Citations in the text of the paper would then include the author's name (with a year or abbreviated title if more than one work is cited) and page number; for instance:

". . . the most pernicious race of odious little vermin" (Swift 120).

The Chicago style gives a full citation in a footnote (or endnote) on the first quotation in this form:

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, ed. Herbert Davis (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965), p. 120.

Subsequent citations in the text include the page number in quotations, with an author's name only when necessary:

"Girl threading an invisible Needle with invisible Silk" (p. 92).

Either style is acceptable, but be consistent. For full details see the MLA Style Guide or the Chicago Manual of Style. All citations should appear under the name of the main author, but should include the names of editors, translators, and so on (writers of introductions aren't necessary). Include the city, publisher, and year of publication. For works of prose, give a page number or a range of pages; for works of poetry, give a line number or range of lines.

Clarity.

Along with grace, the paramount writer's virtue. Your job is to make yourself clear to your reader. Let nothing get in the way. Many of the entries in this guide -- especially Precision, Obfuscation, and Vocabulary -- address clarity.

Clichés.

"Avoid clichés" is such common advice that it's almost a cliché itself, but no worse for that. It's stated especially clearly by Pinney:

[Clichés] offer prefabricated phrasing that may be used without effort on your part. They are thus used at the expense of both individuality and precision, since you can't say just what you mean in the mechanical response of a cliché.

Be especially careful, though, not to muddle your clichés when you do use them. Remember, for example, that the phrase is I couldn't care less, not could. A U.S. Senator, trying to reassure his constituents that the budget talks were going well in spite of the apparent chaos, told reporters, "It's always darkest before the storm," rather than "before the dawn," suggesting that things are going to get worse, not better. Pay attention to every word.

Commas.

Some writers seem to think sprinkling commas every few words is a good rule, but it makes for difficult reading. A few places commas should be avoided:

After and, but, and or, unless the comma sets off a dependent clause (a phrase which can't stand alone as a sentence). It's wrong to write "But, she did get it done on time." Use the comma only if there's a dependent clause, as in, "But, to be fair, she did get it done on time." See Dependent versus Independent Clauses.

Between a month and year in a date: not November, 1990, but November 1990. The comma stops two sets of numerals from running into one another, as in November 20, 1990.

Some style guides call for omitting the comma after very short dependent clauses at the beginning of a sentence: not "On Saturday, the office is closed," but "On Saturday the office is closed." But do use a comma after long dependent clauses: "Because the entire epic is concerned with justifying the ways of God to man, Milton must present free will in a positive light."

Commas are preferred before the last item in a list: leaving them out, as in "the first, second and third chapters," is a habit picked up from journalism. While it saves a little space and effort, omitting the final comma suggests the second and third chapters are some sort of special pair.

See also Run-On Sentences.

Comprise.

Comprise traditionally means comprehend or contain, not constitute. In other words, a zoo comprises animals -- it's not comprised of them (though it is composed of them). Avoid the phrase is comprised of.

Concrete Language.

Use specific, concrete words instead of vague, general ones wherever possible: instead of "apparent significant financial gains," use "a lot of money" or "large profits." Instead of "Job suffers a series of unfavorable experiences," use "Job's family is killed and his possessions are destroyed."

Considered as, Considered to be.

Almost always useless. "The section is considered as essential" or "The section is considered to be essential" just add extra syllables to "The section is considered essential." Even better, ask yourself whether the word considered does anything in the sentence -- does it matter who is considering? "The section is essential" is best of all.

Currently.

What's wrong with now? Or even leaving it out altogether and letting a present-tense verb do the trick? It is currently not available is the same as It is not available or It is not yet available.

D

Dangling Participle.

A participle is a verb ending in -ing, and is called dangling when the subject of the -ing verb and the subject of the sentence do not agree. An example is "When discussing race and gender, sensitivity is necessary." Here the subject is sensitivity, but the sensitivity is not doing the discussing. Better is "When discussing race and gender, the student should be sensitive." Here the student is doing the discussing.

Pay close attention to sentences beginning with When ----ing.

One way to tell whether the participle is dangling is to put the clause with the participle right after the subject of the sentence: "Sensitivity, when discussing race and gender, is necessary" doesn't sound right, but "The student, when discussing race and gender, should be sensitive" does.

Not all words in -ing are participles: in the sentence "Answering the questions in chapter four is your next assignment," the word answering is used as a noun, not a verb. (Nouns in -ing are called gerunds.)

Dash.

A dash (publishers call it an "em-dash") is used to mark a parenthesis -- like this -- or an interruption. Don't confuse it with a Hyphen, although you should use two hyphens -- like this -- for dashes in your papers.

Data.

Though it's nearly a lost cause, purists prefer to keep this a plural noun: "The data are," not "the data is." See also Media and Agreement.

Dependent versus Independent Clauses.

A clause is just a group of words with a subject and a verb, a part of a sentence. Some groups of words can get by on their own without any help: these are called independent. Others can't stand alone; either they don't have their own subject and verb, or they're subordinated to another part of the sentence: these are dependent. (A hint: dependent clauses often begin with words like if, whether, since, and so on.) Knowing the difference can help you figure out when to use commas.

For example: in the sentence "Since we've fallen a week behind, we'll skip the second paper," the first part -- "Since we've fallen a week behind" -- is dependent, because it can't be a sentence on its own. The second part -- "We'll skip the second paper" -- does just fine on its own; it's an independent clause. The independent clause can be a sentence without any help from the Since clause.

Different.

The word different is often redundant, as in several different options or many different participants. Since you can't have several of the same option or many of the same participant, several options and many participants will do nicely.

Direct and Indirect Objects.

A direct object is the thing (or person) acted on by a transitive verb. The indirect object is used most often for the recipient in verbs of giving. Examples are clearer than definitions.

"I took the paper" -- the paper is the direct object, because the verb took acts on the paper; the paper is the thing that was taken. "I called her this morning" -- her is the direct object, because the verb called acts on her; her is the person who was called. "I gave him my suggestions" is a bit trickier. Here him is an indirect object, because him isn't the thing that was given; I gave suggestions, and I gave them to him. Suggestions is the direct object, him the indirect object.

See Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs.

E

Each.

A singular noun which requires a singular verb. Do not write Each of the chapters have a title; use Each of the chapters has a title or (better) Each chapter has a title. See also Every.

Ellipses.

The ellipsis (plural ellipses) is the mark that indicates the omission of quoted material, as in "Brevity is ... wit" (stolen shamelessly from an episode of "The Simpsons"). There are two things to note: first, most typing manuals prefer the periods to be spaced, thus:

Brevity is . . . wit.

(In electronic communication it's sometimes necessary to run them together, since line-wrap is unpredictable.) Second, and more important, is the number of periods. The ellipsis itself is three periods (always); it can appear next to other punctuation, including an end-of-sentence period (resulting in four periods). Use four only when the words on either side of the ellipsis make full sentences. You should never use fewer than three or more than four periods, with only a single exception: when entire lines of poetry are omitted in a block quotation, it's a common practice to replace them with a full line of spaced periods.

Economy.

One of the distinguishing marks of clear and forceful writing is economy of style -- using no more words than necessary. Bureaucratic writing of every stripe (including academic writing) loves to pad every sentence with It should continuously be remembered that's and Moreover, it has been previously indicated's, and it makes for slow reading. After you write a sentence, look it over and ask if the sense is damaged by removing a few words or phrases. Become friendly with the "Delete Word" option on your word processor. See Wasted Words.

Effect versus Affect.

See Affect versus Effect.

E.g. versus i.e.

The abbreviation e.g. is for the Latin exempli gratia, "for example." I.e., Latin id est, means "that is." They're not interchangeable. Both abbreviations should be followed by a comma.

Emphasis.

A tip: the strongest position in a sentence is often the end, followed by the beginning. Don't waste the beginning or the end of a sentence -- the most important parts -- with minor words such as however, additionally, moreover, and so on. Instead of "However, the paper was finished on time" or "The paper was finished on time, however," try "The paper, however, was finished on time." Dan White gives an example:

"I got hit by a car as I was walking to school this morning." After the sentence's initial impact you don't hear a single word. But "As I was walking to school this morning I got hit by a car" carries me out of my apartment, over the bridge, and onto the hood in a sequence that sustains my audience's engagement with today's dent in my morning routine.

Save the end of the sentence for your most important words.

Essentially.

See Wasted Words.

Every.

A singular noun which requires a singular verb and singular pronouns. Do not write Every one of the papers have been graded; use Every one of the papers has been graded or (better) Every paper has been graded. The same goes for everyone: Everyone must sign his or her name, not their name. See also Each and Sexist Language.

Every Day versus Everyday.

Keep 'em straight: everyday (one word) is an adjective, and means "normal, quotidian, occurring every day, not out of the ordinary." Other senses should be two words. So: an everyday event happens every day.

Exists.

Unless you're a professional phenomenologist, you can live quite comfortably without the word exists in your vocabulary. Instead of saying "A problem exists with the system," say "There is a problem with the system."

F

Facet.

The metaphor is often abused; a facet, the hard polished side of a gem, shouldn't stand in for "aspect" where it's inappropriate.

The Fact That.

Usually unnecessary. You can often simply drop the fact and go with that alone: instead of "The fact that the report is incomplete makes it difficult to finish the project," write "That the report is incomplete makes it difficult to finish the poject." Better, rewrite the sentence: "Because the report is incomplete, it is difficult to finish the project."

Farther versus Further.

Though very few people bother with the difference these days, there is a traditional distinction: farther applies to physical distance, further to metaphorical distance. You travel farther, but pursue a topic further. Don't get upset if you can't keep it straight; no one will notice.

Fewer versus Less.

See Less versus Fewer.

Finalize.

An ugly, jargony word.

First, Second, Third.

The jury is still out on whether to use first or firstly, second or secondly, &c. Traditional usage had first, secondly, thirdly, but this is too inconsistent for modern taste. Most guides prefer just plain old first, second, third, and so forth, without the -ly ending.

First Person.

Grammarians have divided references to people into three categories, to refer to I, you, and he or she. The first person is I, me, my, we, our, and so on. The second person is you and your. The third person is he, she, they, their, his, hers, him, her, and so on. While you need to pay close attention to these when you study a foreign language, most issues of person are instinctive to native English speakers. For the few times when you should pay attention, see Shall versus Will and Sexist Language and the Indefinite Third Person.

The Following.

See the entry under The Above.

Fonts.

Don't play with fonts: leave desktop publishing to the desktop publishers. Publishers don't want fancy fonts; they want your writing to look as if it had been typed on a manual typewriter, circa 1958. Don't count on having professors who judge your work based on the typeface. Spend your time writing.

See also Justification.

Footnotes.

See Citation.

Functionality.

The word functionality is too often used as a twisted way of saying function. See also Methodology.

G

Gerund.

See Dangling Participles.

Grace.

Grace always trumps pedantry. Don't let rule-mongering make your prose unreadable. See Bugbears, Audience, and Clarity.

H

Hopefully.

According to traditionalists, hopefully means in a hopeful way, not I hope. You'll keep them (and me) happy by avoiding hopefully in writing; use I hope, we hope, I would like, or, best of all, leave it out altogether.

Hyphen.

A hyphen separates the two parts of a compound word or the two elements of a range: self-conscious; pp. 95-97. (Hard-core typography nerds will point out that ranges of numbers are separated by an en-dash, but you needn't worry about it: type a hyphen.) A compound noun used as an adjective is often hyphenated: a present-tense verb. An exhaustive (not to say exhausting) list of rules and examples appears in The Chicago Manual of Style. Don't confuse a hyphen with a Dash, although you should type a dash as two hyphens.

I

I.e. versus e.g.

See E.g. versus i.e.

Impact.

Impact should remain a noun; a proposal can have an impact, but cannot impact anything without degenerating into jargon. The only thing that can be impacted is a wisdom tooth.

Imperative.

In grammar, an imperative is an order: instead of "You will go," the indicative, the imperative says: "Go." Instead of "You will get the book" -- the indicative -- the imperative says "Get the book."

Though the word imperative is common in business writing, it's big and ugly and intimidating. Go with must or should. Instead of the jargony "It is imperative that the forms be completed on time," try "Be sure to complete the forms on time."

Imply versus Infer.

A speaker implies something by hinting at it; a listener infers something from what he or she hears. Don't use them interchangeably.

Indicative.

See Subjunctives and Shall versus Will.

Individual.

A yucky word. Usually unnecessary; use person or someone. Use individual only when you mean to distinguish an individual from a group or corporation.

Infinitive.

See Split Infinitive.

Interesting.

Sentences beginning "It is interesting that" or "It is significant that" are usually as far from interesting as can be. Don't simply state that something is interesting: show it.

In terms of.

Often useless padding.

Intransitive Verbs.

See Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs.

Irregardless.

Not a word used in respectable company: somewhere between Irrespective and Regardless. Use one of these.

Italics.

Use italics for book titles, for foreign words, and for emphasis. Be careful, though, not to rely too much on italics for emphasis; they make your writing look amateurish. Let the words do most of the work.

Note that italics and underscores are the same thing; use one or the other, but not both, in a paper. Publishers prefer underscores in typescripts; they're easier for typesetters to catch.

See Titles and Fonts.

It's versus Its.

There's no handy short cut; all you can do is memorize the rule. It's with an apostrophe means it is; its without an apostrophe means belonging to it. An analogue might provide a mnemonic: think of "he's" ("he is" gets an apostrophe) and "his" ("belonging to him" doesn't).

J

Jargon.

Jargon is the bane of too much writing -- not only academic writing but business English suffers from jargon and technobabble. Of course some technical terms are useful and even necessary, but the English language should not be abused with these phrases: sign off on, re, imperative, impact, methodology, functionality, network, parameters, &c.

Justification.

It's better to leave your papers "ragged right" (or "flush left"): don't play with full justification. See also Fonts.

L

Less versus Fewer.

Less means "not as much"; fewer means "not as many." You earn less money by selling fewer products; you use less oil but eat fewer fries. If you can count them, use fewer.

Lifestyle.

A yucky vogue word. Look for something precise.

Listing.

Don't use listing as a noun where list will do. A phone book is a list of names and numbers, each of which is a listing.

Literally.

Use the word literally with care, and only where what you are saying is literally true. "We were literally flooded with work" is wrong because the flood is a metaphorical one, not an actual deluge. Do not use literally where really, very, or extremely will do.

Long Words.

There's nothing inherently wrong with long words, but too many people think a long word is always better than a short one. It doubtless comes from a desire to impress, to sound more authoritative, but it usually ends in imprecision and gracelessness. Words like functionality and methodology have their proper uses, but they're not the same as function and method. See also Anticipate, Utilize, Obfuscation, and Vocabulary.

M

Media.

According to the purists, a plural noun: "The media are," not "the media is." See Agreement and Data.

Methodology.

A methodology is the study of, or a system of, methods. Usually you mean method instead of methodology. Like functionality, methodology is a favorite of longwordophiles.

Mixed Metaphor.

A vivid metaphorical imagination is one of the best signs of a good writer. We use more metaphors than we realize, and if we don't pay attention, they become hopelessly scrambled. The sentence "We were swamped with a shocking barrage of work, and the extra burden had a clear impact on our workflow" suggests images of a marsh (swamped), electrocution or striking (shocking), a military assault (barrage), weight (burden), translucency (clear), a physical impression (impact), and a river (flow). Pay attention to the literal meaning of figures of speech and your writing will come alive.

Modifier.

A modifier simply gives additional information about a word: instead of "bench" -- any old bench -- we get "wooden bench"; instead of "read" -- read how? -- we get "read quickly." Modifiers are usually adjectives or adverbs.

N

Nature.

No offense to the ecologists, but nature is often useless. Decisions of a delicate nature would be better if they were just plain old delicate decisions.

Necessitate.

If you mean require, say require or rework the sentence so that necessitate is not needed.

Network.

Network was very happy when it was just a noun; when you're outside the computer lab, don't force it to serve double duty as a verb. Networking summons up images of yuppies in power ties.

"Never" and "Always."

Any grammatical or stylistic rule beginning with "Never" or "Always" should be suspect, and that includes the rules in this guide. No word or construction in the language is completely valueless, even if some come pretty damn close. Apply all guidelines intelligently and sensitively, and forsake pedantic bugbears in favor of grace. See Audience and read it twice.

Nor.

Although there are other possibilities, you can't go wrong if you use nor only after the word neither: instead of "Keats did not write novels nor essays," use either "Keats did not write novels or essays" or "Keats wrote neither novels nor essays." You can say "Keats did not write novels, nor did he write essays."

Not un-.

This phrase, as in "The subtleties did not go unnoticed," is often an affectation. Be more direct.

Numbers.

The high school rule about spelling out numbers less than one hundred (some say ten) and writing them as numerals above has enslaved too many people. It's a good start, but here are a few more guidelines.

Never begin a sentence with a numeral: either spell out the number, or rewrite the sentence to move the number from the beginning.

Very large round numbers should be spelled out: not 1,000,000,000, but one billion.

In a series of numbers, either spell them out or use numerals for every member of the list: don't switch in the middle, as in "pages thirty-two, ninety-six, 107, and 235."

Dates should always get numerals: "October 3, 1990."

There's no reason to use both numerals and words for the same number: unless a law firm is paying you enough money to butcher the language with impunity, steer clear of abominations like "two (2)" or "12 (twelve)."

The only time you should mix spelling and numerals is in very large numbers: not 8,600,000, but 8.6 million.

Use numerals for anything difficult to spell out: not four and sixteen seventeenths, thirteen thousand three hundred twenty six, or three point one four one five nine. You can spell out simple fractions like one half or two thirds.

O

Obfuscation.

Don't use long words where short ones will do; it makes your writing dense and difficult to understand. Words ending in -ality, -ation, -ize, -ization, -ational, and so forth are often guilty of making sentences more complex than they need to be. Ask yourself if these suffixes can be removed without damaging the sense: if you can use a shorter form, you probably should. Many of these guidelines -- changing methodology to method, usage to use, functionality to function -- are applications of this tip. See Concrete Language, Long Words, and Vocabulary.

Only.

Though it's not necessarily wrong to place the word only nearly anywhere in a sentence, if you don't stand to lose grace, try for precision by putting the modifier next to the word or phrase it modifies. "We'll only write three big papers this semester" might suggest we won't do anything else with these three big papers. "We'll write only three big papers this semester" makes the meaning clearer. But if it makes your sentence clumsy or unidiomatic, nix it.

P

Paragraphs.

There's no hard and fast rule for the length of a paragraph: it can be as short as a sentence or as long as it has to be. Just remember that each paragraph should contain only one developed idea. A paragraph often begins with a topic sentence which sets the tone of the paragraph; the rest amplifies, clarifies, or explores the topic sentence. When you change topics, start a new paragraph.

Parentheses.

Don't use parentheses to avoid introducing important ideas properly. Dan White's example points out the danger of burying important ideas in parentheses:

The American and French Revolutions (which were very important to English writers of the 1780s and 90s) provided the inspiration for Blake's prophetic poetry.

See also Emphasis.

Participles.

See Dangling Participles.

Passive Voice.

Overuse of the passive voice makes a passage dense. The active voice takes the form of Something does something. The passive is in the form of Something is done. Instead of the passive "You will be given a guide," try the active "We will give you a guide." Do not confuse am, is, are, to be, and so forth with the passive voice, and don't confuse action verbs with the active voice. The real question is whether the subject of the sentence is doing anything. I have been giving is active, while I have been given is passive.

A danger of the passive voice is that it lets the writer shirk the responsibility of providing a subject for the verb. Dan White gives an example:

"I'm sorry that the paper was poorly written." If you're going to apologize, apologize: "I'm sorry I wrote a bad paper." The active voice forces one to be specific and confident, not wimpy.

Of course some passives are necessary and useful, as in "Not all passives can be avoided."

Per.

Avoid the businessese habit of using per instead of according to, as in per manufacturers' guidelines.

Person.

See First Person.

Personalized.

Personalized means made personal, and suggests that something was not personal at one time but now is. This isn't what you mean in phrases like personalized attention. Use personal in most cases. See Obfuscation.

Plus.

The use of the word plus where and or with would be better is a bad habit picked up from advertising copy. Try to limit plus to mathematics, and use and or with where they're appropriate.

Precision.

The guiding principle in all your word choices should be precision, the most important contributor to clarity.

Sometimes this means choosing words a little out of the ordinary: peripatetic might come closer to the mark than wandering, and recondite is sometimes more accurate than obscure. But while a large vocabulary will help you here, don't resort to long words or obfuscation. More often precision means choosing the right familiar word: paying attention to easily confused pairs like imply and infer, and making sure the words you choose have exactly the right meaning. For instance, "Hamlet's situation is extremely important in the play" means almost nothing. Try something that expresses a particular idea, like "Hamlet's indecision forces the catastrophe" or "The murder of Hamlet's father brings about the crisis."

Precision can also mean putting your words in just the right order, or using just the right grammatical construction to make your point. Always read your writing as closely as possible, paying attention to every word, and ask yourself whether every word says exactly what you want.

Prepositions.

Prepositions are usually little words that indicate direction, position, location, and so forth. Some examples: to, with, from, at, in, near, by, beside, and above.

A quick-and-dirty rule of thumb: you can sometimes recognize a preposition by putting it before the word he: if your ear tells you he should be him, the word is a preposition. Thus to plus he becomes to him, so to is a preposition. (This doesn't help with verbs of action; show + he becomes show him. Still, it might help in some doubtful cases.)

Prepositions at the End.

Along with split infinitives, a favorite bugbear of the traditionalists. Whatever the merit of the rule -- and both historically and logically, there's not much -- there's a substantial body of opinion against end-of-sentence prepositions; if you want to keep the crusty old-timers happy, try to avoid ending written sentences (and clauses) with prepositions, such as to, with, from, at, and in. Instead of writing "The topics we want to write on," where the preposition on ends the clause, consider "The topics on which we want to write." Prepositions should usually go before (pre-position) the words they modify.

On the other hand -- and it's a big other hand -- old-timers shouldn't dictate your writing, and you don't deserve your writing license if you elevate this rough guideline into a superstition. Don't let it make your writing clumsy or obscure; if a sentence is more graceful with a final preposition, let it stand. A sentence becomes unnecessarily obscure when it's filled with from whom's and with which's. According to a widely circulated (and often mutated) story, Winston Churchill, reprimanded for ending a sentence with a preposition, put it best: "This is the sort of thing up with which I will not put."

Previous.

Overused. Earlier may be more to the point, and previous is often redundant, as in "Our previous discussion." Unless you mean to distinguish that discussion from another one (such as "the discussion before the one I just mentioned"), leave out previous, since you're not likely to mention discussions you haven't had yet.

Prior to.

Replace prior to or prior with before or earlier whenever possible.

Pronoun.

A pronoun takes the place of a noun: it stands for (Latin pro-) a noun. Pronouns include he, it, her, me, and so forth. Instead of saying "Bob gave Terry a memo Bob wrote, and Terry read the memo" we'd use the nouns Bob, Terry, and memo only once, and let pronouns do the rest: "Bob gave Terry a memo he wrote, and she read it."

There are a few special sorts of pronouns: possessive pronouns, such as my, hers, and its, which mean of something or belonging to something; and relative pronouns, such as whose and which, that connect a relative clause to a sentence: "She read the memo, which mentioned the new system."

Punctuation and Quotation Marks.

In America, commas and periods go inside quotation marks, while semicolons and colons go outside, regardless of the punctuation in the original quotation. Question marks and exclamation points depend on whether the question or exclamation is part of the quotation, or part of the sentence containing the quotation. Some examples: See the chapter entitled "The Conclusion, in which Nothing is Concluded." The spokesman called it "shocking," and called immediately for a committee. Have you read "Araby"? He asked "How are you?"

In American usage, all quoted material goes in "double quotation marks"; if you need a quotation inside a quotation, use 'single quotation marks' (also called "inverted commas") inside: "This for quotations, 'this' for quotations inside quotations." Quotations inside quotations are the only place for single quotation marks -- don't use them to highlight individual words.

Punctuation and Spaces.

Put one space after a comma or semicolon; put two spaces after a period, colon, exclamation point, or question mark. For spaces after quotation marks, base your choice on the punctuation inside the quotation. See also Ellipses.

Q

Quality.

Quality may be the most abused and overused word in business English. The word is a noun, and means a characteristic or a degree of excellence. Do not use quality as an adjective, as in a quality product. Use well made, good, useful, or something similar. Never use quality as an adverb, as in a quality-built product. Perhaps the best advice is: never use quality.

Quite.

Quite is almost always a space-waster; it usually softens sentences that usually shouldn't be softened. See Wasted Words.

Quotation Marks.

See Punctuation and Quotation Marks.

R

Re.

Avoid using re where concerning, regarding, or about will do the trick, as in Re your memo of 13 January. . . . It makes your writing jargony.

Redundancy.

Pay attention to redundant words and phrases, as in actual reality and anticipate for the future. See Different.

Relative Pronouns.

See Pronouns and That versus Which.

Run-On Sentences.

Just as there's nothing wrong with a long word, there's nothing wrong with a long sentence. But it has to be grammatical. A run-on sentence is ungrammatical, not just long. It often happens when two sentences are run into one without the proper subordination or punctuation. When two grammatical sentences are glued together with only a comma, this is called a comma splice, a kind of run-on: for instance, "The semester runs through April, the break begins in May." There are a number of ways of fixing this comma-splice: "The semester runs through April. The break begins in May"; "The semester runs through April, and the break begins in May"; "The semester runs through April; the break begins in May"; "The semester runs through April, whereas the break begins in May," and so on. See Semicolon and Dependent versus Independent Clauses.

S

Second Person.

See First Person.

Semicolon.

In this century, at any rate, the semicolon has only two common uses: to separate the items in a list after a colon (as in "The following books will be covered on the midterm: the Odyssey, through book 12; passages from Ovid's Metamorphoses; and the selections from Chaucer"), and to separate two independent clauses in one sentence (as in "Shakespeare's comedies seem natural; his tragedies seem forced"). The first is obvious enough. For the second use, a simple test is this: if you can use a period and a new sentence, you can use a semicolon. In this second use, the semicolon can always be replaced by a period and a new sentence. In the example, "Shakespeare's comedies seem natural. His tragedies seem forced" is correct, so a semicolon can be used.

Sentences.

A sentence should contain one idea, though that can be a complex or compound idea. The most obscure sentences in academic writing are sentences filled to bursting. If your writing lacks clarity, check to see if a long, bad sentence might make two short, good ones.

This isn't to say that all sentences should be short. Long sentences add variety, and some ideas are too complicated to fit into seven words. But don't turn your simple ideas into monstrous sentences, devouring line after line without mercy. One idea, one sentence.

Sentence Fragments.

A sentence fragment is a group of words passing itself off as a sentence without having a true subject and a verb. Like this. Which is a bad habit. Picked up from advertising. Not for English papers.

Sexist Language and the Indefinite Third Person.

The movement away from potentially sexist language has been a mixed blessing. While it has replaced the obviously exclusionary Workman's Compensation with Worker's Compensation, it has also produced abominations such as waitperson instead of waiter or waitress. Most of the time it requires only a little sensitivity. But perhaps the most confusing issue is the use of the third person indefinite pronoun, as in "Each student is responsible for revising his/her/their/one's papers." Which pronoun is correct? This is a delicate question, and there is no one solution.

Each student is singular -- the is instead of are proves it -- so the colloquial their (a plural) doesn't agree with the verb, and is not grammatically correct. We use this often in speaking -- "A friend of mine called me." "What did they say?" -- but, although many writers have used it (see examples from Jane Austen), it often makes for bad formal writing today.

English once had an indefinite third person pronoun, one, that helped out in certain situations; but "One should do this" sounds too much like British royalty for informal writing, and the word has fallen out of general American use.

. . . Leaving his and her, or some combination of the two. "Each student is responsible for revising his papers" is the traditional usage, but it suggests male chauvinism. "Each student is responsible for revising her papers" is another possibility, though it can sound patronizing and seem to beat the reader over the head. "Each student is responsible for revising his or her papers" or "his/her papers" are grammatical and nonsexist, but become positively clumsy after fifteen or twenty appearances.

There are several ways out. One is to mix the occasional his or her together with his's and her's separately; this cuts down on suggestions of sexism without making your writing clumsy. Another is to use his sometimes, her at other times, although this doesn't feel natural to most writers (yet). Finally, you can avoid the problem altogether and make your subject plural whenever possible: "All students are responsible for revising their papers." In any case, avoid their with singular subjects in writing, and shy away from his/her (see Slashes). See Each and Every for singular nouns that require attention, and see a short piece by Carolyn Jacobson on Gender-Neutral Language. There's also a Web page devoted to Gender-Free Pronoun Frequently Asked Questions (GFP FAQ).

Shall versus Will.

There is an old distinction, most common in British English, but which comes up from time to time. In this distinction, will usually refers to the simple future indicative: "this will happen," "you will be surprised." Shall is called the subjunctive, and means "let it be so," which you might see in legal or business writing: "The employee shall produce all required documentation," "A committee shall be appointed," and so forth.

Those interested in the recesses of grammar might want to follow an obscure traditional rule. That distinction of shall and will above should get you through in most cases, but it only works for the second person (you) and the third person (he, she, it, they). The first person -- I and we -- reverses the rule, so "I shall do it" means I'm going to get around to it, while "I will do it" shows your mustering your resolve (let it be so).

It's nothing to worry about.

Slashes.

Slashes are far too common, and almost always betray a lazy thinker: by yoking two words together with a slash, the writer tells us the words are related, but he doesn't know how. Replace the slash with and or or. In a phrase such as Gulliver encounters people much bigger/smaller than he is, write Gulliver encounters people much bigger or smaller than he is. Instead of his/her, write his or her.

So as to.

Often the word "to" alone will do the trick.

Split Infinitive.

An infinitive is the form of a verb that comes after to, as in to support or to write. A split infinitive -- a favorite bugbear of the traditionalists -- occurs when another word comes between the to and the verb. Some people prefer to keep the to next to the verb at all times, and while grammar experts are divided over this rule, it's probably better to avoid split infinitives whenever possible. Instead of "Matt seems to always do it that way," try "Matt always seems to do it that way."

Adverbs often insinuate themselves between the to and the verb, as in "To boldly go where no man has gone before," or "To always keep a watch on your bag."

Don't let split infinitives become an obsession; there are times when split infinitives are clearer or more graceful than their ostensibly more grammatical cousins.

Subjunctives.

Anyone who's studied a foreign language will be glad that English has almost entirely lost the subjunctive it once had. Grammarians have a hard time defining subjunctive; don't worry if you don't follow.

Unlike the indicative, which indicates that something is true, the subjunctive expresses a wish, a command, or a condition contrary to fact. Archaic English is full of subjunctives, as in "Would that it were" and "Thou shalt not."

The English subjunctive still shows up in a few places, most often in conditions contrary to fact, where we use were instead of is: "If this were any heavier [but it's not -- a condition contrary to fact], I couldn't lift it"; "If she were to say that [but she's not], I'd leave."

Some also classify shall as a subjunctive (see Shall versus Will).

T

Titles.

The titles of books and other long works (plays, long poems, operas, &c.) are either italicized or underscored (see Italics); the titles of shorter works (essays, short poems, &c.) appear in quotation marks. For borderline cases, the test is whether it could be published as a book on its own: even if you're reading King Lear in a larger anthology, it's long enough that it could be a book, so it gets italics.

That versus Which.

According to the more quibbling self-styled grammar experts, that is restrictive, while which is not.

Many grammarians insist on a distinction without any historical justification. Many of the best writers in the language couldn't tell you the difference between them, while many of the worst think they know. If the subtle difference between the two confuses you, use whatever sounds right. Other matters are more worthy of your attention.

For the curious, however, the relative pronoun that is restrictive, which means it tells you a necessary piece of information about its antecedent: for example, "The word processor that is used most often is WordPerfect." Here the that phrase answers an important question: which of the many word processors are we talking about? And the answer is the one that is used most often.

Which is non-restrictive: it does not limit the word it refers to. An example is "Penn's ID center, which is called CUPID, has been successful so far." Here that is unnecessary: the which does not tell us which of Penn's many ID centers we're considering; it simply provides an extra piece of information about the plan we're already discussing. "Penn's ID Center" tells us all we really need to know to identify it.

It boils down to this: if you can tell which thing is being discussed without the which or that clause, use which; if you can't, use that.

There are two rules of thumb you can keep in mind. First, if the phrase needs a comma, you probably mean which. Since "Penn's ID center" calls for a comma, we would not say "Penn's ID Center, that is called CUPID."

Another way to keep them straight is to imagine by the way following every which: "Penn's ID center, which (by the way) is called CUPID. . . ." The which adds a useful, but not grammatically necessary, piece of information. On the other hand, we wouldn't say "The word processor which (by the way) is used most often is WordPerfect," because the word processor on its own isn't enough information -- which word processor?.

A paradoxical mnemonic: use that to tell which, and which to tell that.

Third Person.

See First Person.

Thrust.

Strunk and White are on the mark here: "This showy noun, suggestive of power, hinting of sex, is the darling of executives, politicos, and speech-writers. Use it sparingly."

Totally.

See Wasted Words.

Transitions.

Writing should flow. Each sentence should follow on the one before it, and each paragraph should pick up where the previous one left off. Try to make the connections between your sentences and paragraphs logical. The paragraph's topic sentence is a good place for this. See Paragraphs.

Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs.

Not as difficult as some people think. A transitive verb takes a direct object: it shows action upon someone or something. Intransitive verbs take no direct object; they need only a subject to make a sentence.

Some transitive verbs: Hit (you have to hit something or someone; you can't just hit); climb (you don't just climb; you climb something); and bring (bring what?). Intransitive verbs: sleep (you don't sleep something; you just sleep); and fall (while you can fall down the stairs, you don't fall the stairs).

There are a few things worth noticing. First, just because something grammatically needs a direct object doesn't mean we actually use it. If someone said, I swung the bat and hit, we don't have to ask what he hit; the direct object ball is understood.

Second, many intransitives might look like transitives, as in She walked three hours. Here three hours is not really a direct object; it doesn't say what she walked, but how long (it's actually an adverbial phrase).

Third, many verbs can be both transitive and intransitive: while ran in the paragraph above is intransitive, the same word is transitive in He ran the program for two years. Children can play catch, or they can just play. Even sleep, given above as an intransitive, could become transitive if we said He slept the sleep of the righteous.

The only real danger is when you start changing verbs willy-nilly: "We have to think quality" (giving the intransitive think a direct object); "I hope you enjoy" (instead of enjoy it).

U

Underscores.

See Italics.

Unique.

Unique means "one of a kind." There are no degrees of uniqueness: something is unique, or it is not. If you want a word that admits degrees, use special or unusual.

Usage.

Usage is a guide on how to use something properly; use is actually using it. Thus the use of a semicolon is to separate clauses, while its usage is the list of rules on exactly how it has to be used. Someone who knows the use of a word understands how it fits in a sentence; someone who knows the usage has studied the grammatical rules and semantic relations. Each time you use something, that's one use (the noun), not one usage. You usually mean use rather than usage.

Utilize and Utilization.

Use is almost always better, whether pronounced yooz as a verb or yoos as a noun. Don't longwordify what would otherwise be clear.

V

Verbal.

Verbal means "related to words"; a written agreement is just as verbal as an oral one. If you mean something spoken, use oral. Will Rogers ignored this distinction in his quip, "A verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on."

Very.

See Wasted Words.

Vocabulary.

Having a large vocabulary can never hurt, but you should use your energy wisely. While knowing words like obnubiate, hebetic, and tergiversation can make you the envy of your crossword-puzzle-playing friends, in writing you'll get more mileage out of knowing the precise meaning of more common words. Can you distinguish climatic from climactic? -- tortuous from torturous? -- incredible from incredulous? -- turgid from turbid? They're very different, but often confused. For a good guide, to these pairs and others, see Maxwell Nurnberg in the "Additional Reading" section.

Don't use obscure words just because you can; ostentation leads only to obfuscation. Using mirific where amazing or wonderful will do is just showing off and intimidating your audience. See also Long Words.

W

Wasted Words.

Many words and phrases rarely add anything to a sentence. Avoid these whenever you can. A very short list of some of these offenders: Quite, very, extremely, as it were, moreover, it can be seen that, it has been indicated that, basically, essentially, totally, completely, therefore, it should be remembered that, it should be noted that, thus, it is imperative that, at the present moment in time. While these are fine in their place, they often slither into your writing with the sinister purpose of tempting you into the sin of padding your sentences. See Economy.

Which versus That.

See That versus Which.

Who versus Whom.

While it's possible to memorize a rule for distinguishing who from whom, it's easier to trust your ear. A simple test to see which is proper is to replace who/whom with he/him. If he sounds right, use who; if him is right, use whom. For example: since he did it and not him did it, use who did it; since we give something to him and not to he, use to whom. It gets tricky only when the preposition is separated from the who: Who/whom did you give it to? Rearrange the words in your head: To whom did you give it? See Preposition at the End.

-Wise.

Ad hoc words like salarywise and timewise, meaning regarding salaries or time, are best avoided. Strunk and White put it well: "The sober writer will abstain from the use of this wild additive."


Additional Reading

There are many writing guides, most of them awful. The books below are considered classics in the field.


On-Line Sources

  • Keith Ivey's English Usage Page contains many valuable discussions of grammar, style, and usage, and includes many references to the alt.usage.english newsgroup and the excellent collection of frequently asked questions compiled by Mark Israel. See also the Elementary Grammar at www.hiway.co.uk, the on-line edition of Strunk's 1918 Elements of Style, Gary Shapiro's page on It's versus Its, and my collection of other on-line writers' resources.